Wander no. 6

My parents went to considerable lengths to get my £30 bicycle up to Scotland for me. I sat in the kitchen on the morning of my departure, head still spinning from the jaegerbombs pawned off on me by my brother the night before, while they spent a good while outside in the cold November air, trying to figure out how to rig a bike rack to the back of their car. And two months after they’d dragged it up the length of the M6 for me, I wheeled it into Recyke-a-Bike and left with another. So long, sweet pal. We’d been together for just over four months. It was a good ride.

I’ve had my new wheels for about five weeks now, and in that time, I’ve learned how to take it apart and put it back together again, how to fix a flat, how to ride with my hands idly catching wind at my sides. I remember, not long before I left, I went on a bike ride around Preston with a fella that I’d been seeing at the time, and he told me that riding hands-free was one of the great milestones in the life of a casual cyclist, and I remember never once being able to do it as a child. But I can do it now, and it came to me so effortlessly that I wonder if it was ever really any great feat at all.

The first thing that I did when I moved to Stirling was ride to Dunblane. I’d been here for perhaps three days. It was mid-autumn. Everything was ablaze in deep orange. The distance was comparable to that travelled whenever I rode into work in England, over fields of pale green and down along the industrial canal. It was a breeze, but I never did it again. I cycle in and out of work every day here and I’ve cycled many times down past the abattoir and through the farmlands at the bottom of my road. I’ve cycled through the university campus. But it’s been three months and I haven’t been anywhere! I get such a buzz on the bike, and how desperate I’ve been to get out and ride!

So I gazed out of my kitchen window on Monday morning, staring despondently at the mist descending down over the foothills immediately behind the flat opposite; at the puddles of water in the parking lot, rippling in sudden uptakes of wind. It was my day off, it was the day!, and I stood in my kitchen, deliberating postponing the ride yet again. Not only was the weather questionable, but the ride that I’d been planning all this time took me down a road that had, that very morning, been closed for maintenance. For five weeks! I was too damn late.

But sack that, right? I grabbed my helmet and hit the road anyway.

I set off towards Stirling as I always do, and it was a battle to get my legs to cooperate and take me down the cycle path that runs along the railway tracks. But once we reached the end, near the pedestrian crossing that I dash across every morning, I turned left where I would’ve typically turned right, and suddenly they were up for the game.

I rode the entire eastern outskirts of town, from the bottom of the university to Bannockburn in the south; through industrial farmland, past the short smoke stacks that I can see from the dead centre of town every morning when they push steam out against a burning sunrise. I found myself underneath a railway bridge so short that I had to touch my chest to my handlebars to get beneath it, on a path so close to the stream that the cycle map pinned to my bedroom wall advises me to avoid it completely in the rain. I turned down off a busy A-road and onto the descent of a vast, suburban hill on the way back into town, and I saw the Ochils for the first time in all their glory to the north. Living far too close to them to really comprehend their size, I realised just how high we’d climbed when my cousin and I had scrambled to the top of Dumyat, their eastern-most peak, last month. I got lost for a while in Bannockburn, and when I finally made my way back into Stirling, I ditched my bike outside the Thistles and stumbled directly into Our Place, where I ate the best goddamn bowl of soup that I’ve ever had and flicked through the final pages of Ways of Seeing on my e-reader.

I slept for hours that night. I pushed through a nine-hour shift on Tuesday with so much energy, with such totally high spirits. The sensation that you get when you stare down at the road rushing underneath your feet is everlasting.

It was 18.9 kilometres in total. It was just precisely one-quarter of the distance of the race that I’ve signed up to do in September. It was nothing, but it was so goddamn fun, like cycling hands-free, half-asleep, to work under the rising sun.

+ 3 months: retraction and redirection

A year and a half or so ago, I sat on the edge of the couch in the university photography department. Across from me sat my course leader, prodding me for insights into a psyche I was always, for reasons unknown to me even now, reluctant to let him have. But he knew me regardless, and I’d been complaining to him about feeling a certain uncertainty in regards to my creative practice, and after a long period of consideration, he leaned across and said to me, in all seriousness, “you’re culturally under-stimulated mate.” I didn’t like the sound of that at all, so I huffed and dropped my gaze to the stack of digital photography rags on the IKEA-grade coffee table between us. Son of a bitch! I thought to myself, but I knew he was right. He told me to read more books, and I did. To watch more documentaries, see more shows, to do something, and I did. It paid off in time. I graduated with a First. Holla.

And yet, here we are. My last post is something of an embarrassment to me at the moment, but I always crumble to the January Blues, and it’s perhaps the most honest thing that I’ve written here so far. I’ve been reeling around in acute sadness and panic since New Year, not knowing what to do with my life or my future or my money or my time, but you know, February always brings about a sense of clarity and direction for me, and here it is: I’ve been so quick to blame all of this angst on everything around me – my job, this town, the seemingly endless bands of bitter rain that drive me indoors when all I wanna do is ride my bike. But the other day, I sat down and I read back through the first chapter of the late John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, and perhaps it’s because it’s such a pinnacle text in photographic education and theory that it sparked something in my head, but those words spoken to me by my course leader last year drifted back into my periphery. Culturally under-stimulated. It’s real fucking apt alright. Might’ve graduated okay, but it seems to me that I haven’t really learned anything concrete. I am chronically under-stimulated, even now, and I ain’t got no one to blame but myself. Shieeet.

Let’s face up to it all for a second: Working full time is a drag, but my job is actually pretty rad. The hours are semi-unreliable I guess, and the pay could be better, but I’m actually doing pretty great financially and professionally. And I’ve been feeling kinda trapped, but I wonder if perhaps my biggest problem is not Stirling itself, but that I live out in the suburbs (and it’s not just the suburbs, it’s the pensioner’s suburbs), and maybe I should move into town. And I’ve been thinking that maybe I should bite the bullet and learn how to drive already. And may-be, I just need to pull my head out, stop moping around, and make some shit again.

I started this blog a few months back because I had this sort of ingrained assumption that moving out and moving away would be hard, and I wanted to document this sort of mid-millennial adulthood that I was about to step into for the first time. And it has been difficult, in exactly all the ways that I’d imagined, but it’s also been nothing like I imagined. I’ve felt lonely, over-worked, bored as fuck, pretty cosy, hideously optimistic about the future, sick to my stomach over the the general state of humanity, constantly confused, utterly terrified, fairly content, and often completely stoked on life; and I’ve documented it all so inadequately. So vaguely. I’ve got so much to learn about writing, and so much to learn about life.

But listen: yesterday, I left my house in the subzeroes at 5.30am to cycle into town. I was working the early, and the only vehicles that passed me on the way were the road gritters. But the night before, I’d really struggled to fall asleep. I was up long after lights-out, thinking – for the first time in a goddamn long time – about photography, and about zines, and about art shows and self-employment, and about books, and about how nothing materialises from anything without effort. And before I set off to work in the morning, running strong on only a couple hours of sleep, I threw my point-and-shoot Mju into my bag, and I spent my afternoon shooting, working through two rolls of film before I’d even really started. And shit, how I’ve struggled and struggled to write things down here, but how easily this is coming to me now.

These vibes followed me into work again today. They followed me on my bike ride around the ‘burbs. They followed me to the Co-op to pick up mushrooms and Onken. I feel alright, and when my pals share things like this on Facebook, I feel even better. I feel inspired and creative, and I’m so over being down about this incredibly privileged life that I’m currently hanging around in. Things are good, man. And for the first time in a goddamn long time, I am totally calm.

Here’s to art and writing, y’all.

Onwards, with nothing (/everything)

Tonight, I sat on a bench, and the bench itself sat perfectly parallel to the road, which ran parallel to the community pavilion building, which sat parallel to the playing grounds, which sat parallel to the river, which ran parallel to the railway tracks in the distance. I stared out towards them in the dark and waited for the passenger trains to race across my horizon – I caught two travelling south into Stirling proper and beyond, and then the much faster northbound service, headed perhaps to the Tayside coast or up to Inverness. Much closer, cars and cyclists and runners passed me on the road. My ass was wet on the bench and my hands reeked of the rubber cement that I’d used to patch a puncture on my bicycle tire. My head was in tatters, and I scarcely knew why.

Yesterday, I dumped half of my belongings into the clothing bank at the fire station. I felt immense, and still do. I don’t own much anyway, owing to a base character makeup of frugality and non-commitment, and when I’d moved up here in the first place, I’d abandoned half of what I’d owned then as well. I now own roughly a quarter of what I did three months ago, and the ultimate dream of whittling down my possessions into a single bag doesn’t seem quite as far-fetched as it did then.

I’ve been wondering how long I’ll stay in Stirling, and it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that it likely won’t be much longer. When is it appropriate to leave? I’ve got my eye on the Hebrides, on Dundee, on Aberdeen, on Kirkwall, but how do I get there? How do I stay there? The logistical distance between where I am and where I want to be always seems insurmountable and the restlessness builds and builds.

I feel sick and nervous. Suffocated and frustrated.

And so on.

And so, as it goes, I thought too much about the future and stormed out of my apartment, setting off towards the open air and the open arms of a panic attack. I thought too much about the words, and a heavy palpitation pounded in my chest; a thick, torrid thump that reminded me of the physicality of my blood and my body. “This is fine,” I told myself, capable now of coping with such sensations, and I sat down to stare out towards the trains until the January air sank through my coat and I began to feel cold again in the winter mist. I took the long way home, joining the river at the footbridge where it veers away from the tracks and towards the high street. And passing over it on the main road, I thought I spied a heron through the dark, standing stock-still on the edge of an ait. I called my dad to tell him about it. I told my mother that I wanted nothing more than to live out of my backpack and head elsewhere. And they said to me, 220 miles to the south, “why not?”

Why not?

 

On snowfall

Year after year, with the arrival of the solstice, I always feel a deep-seated disappointment at the fact that, come morning, the pendulum will begin to fall back in the other direction. There’s something about the inherent extremity of the solstice that attracts me in the weeks preceding, but the day itself is over far too quickly for me and I begin to lament its passing before its even out. This happens to me in the summer as well, but it bites more in December, when I get it into my head that the lengthening of the days must mean that it will no longer be cold, that the weather will no longer be severe and unreliable.

But the solstice marks the first day of winter, and year after year, come the January snow, I wonder how it is that I seem to remain so consistently ignorant of that fact. It’s the first day of winter!

I guess that growing up, the first snow often fell on Halloween – actually on the day itself. I spent so many years squeezed into my trademark pumpkin costume, gazing expectantly at the sky while I dragged my pops around the neighbourhood for candy, and I wasn’t often disappointed. But the snow falls here in January instead and I always feel surprised, almost as if it shouldn’t be falling at all if it can’t be bothered to start doing so in October. But 52 and a half weeks ago, I was descending into Ambleside from Loughrigg Fell with Harley, patting off a thick layer of snow from the top of his hood before we retired into the jam-packed Apple Pie Eating House; and two years ago, I was climbing into the Lakeside mountains with my then-girlfriend, collapsing into the fresh powder when we got to the top; and today, I stared out at the dark gray that hugged the horizon to the West and bled out into the pure white sky above me, and I knew that it’d come. And no sooner had I even formed that thought in my head than it did.

The lower Northwest – Lancashire, Manchester, coastal Merseyside, Cheshire even; the places that I lived and roamed – usually experiences the January snow in the form of a dismal sleet (hence, I suppose, my winter trips into the Lake District.) But this is my first winter in Scotland and it’s been falling properly for hours now, occasionally as a flurry, now heavier, burying the grit that was preemptively laid out by the council yesterday evening.

It’s no secret that I love the snow. I love the harsh Arctic wind that rattles against my windows and threatens to throw me into the Forth as I cycle over the old city bridge. I love sub-zeroes, and I know that when the clouds clear tonight, the temperatures will plummet, and tomorrow will be fresh. And I can’t wait.

 

On December 21, the sun was up for six hours and fifty-five minutes in central Scotland. It didn’t seem like a satisfactory number to me, and I longed to be somewhere where it was six hours and four minutes, or four hours and nineteen minutes. Or somewhere that won’t even see twilight until mid-March. But the solstice is arbitrary to the jet stream, to conflicting air masses from the Arctic and the Continent, to the Atlantic currents. Winter comes regardless, and thank goodness.

2016, it’s been real

When I was a kid, I always ushered in the new year with such enthusiasm and elation, derived entirely from the fact that I would finally be able to write a new number down in the date on my homework. The months changed with too regular a frequency for me to give a shit, but I’d have to wait 365 days!! to be able to write something else in that far-right column, and it was a damn big deal to me.

But as a teenager, I adopted the same semi-pretentious nonchalance towards the new year as most of my friends and classmates. New year, new me? What is a year, anyway? And who am I? This pile of rocks swings ceaselessly around a burning star and I lay awake at night, staring at my stucco’d ceiling with my hands folded across my chest, content in the knowledge that life is pointless and I am arbitrary.

And listen, I confess to holding that view long past adolescence. Sure, a year is a convenient unit of measurement, and sure, I’ll never turn down the opportunity to ring in a new one in with good company and a beer or two (or three or four), but honestly, what even is a year, and why should any of us really give a damn? Time is a social construct after all, and yada yada, yada yada.

But the thing about social constructs is that, while they exist only within the realm of human comprehension, that doesn’t mean that any of us are actually free from them, no matter how enlightened or educated we claim ourselves to be. I mean, language is a social construct, for Christ’s sake. So here we are, hurtling around the sun, exposed to the seasons, and social construct or fact of nature, it does all mean something.

So, here’s a gratuitous list of things that happened to me, or to the folks around me, this year:

  • I received a First on my dissertation after having spent most of the fall semester recovering from major surgery.
  • I developed a severely troublesome preoccupation with the idea of death and for a couple of months, I did little else other than panic about my imminent demise.
  • I got help.
  • I began to feel better.
  • My cousin died one day after turning 38.
  • I graduated, again with a First.
  • I rambled through Sweden and Denmark with my best pal for the better part of a month.
  • My ma was diagnosed with breast cancer.
  • I got the most casual of all casual jobs in order to make a quick buck and fund my travels.
  • My ma “beat” breast cancer, if you would.
  • My aunt died suddenly.
  • I was unexpectedly blown to Scotland by my casual job.
  • I finally completed my Goodreads reading challenge for the first time in, like, ever.
  • I failed to do virtually everything else that I’d set out to do by the end of the year.
  • I did some other beautiful things instead.
  • And I did plenty of irresponsible things.
  • I learned some stuff and know a little more about the world now than I did this time last year.
  • By and large, I kept it together.

But more than all of this, 2016 was the first year in which I became absolutely conscious of the importance of the constraints that exist between January and December. Somewhere between the 23rd of June and Bastille Day, it occurred to me that, in the not-so-distant future, 2016 will probably take up just as much space in history textbooks as 1968 does now. It’ll be described as a turbulent year for certain, and any other words that’ll be applied to it will be dependant on whatever is set to follow.

2016 has been the first year (in my admittedly short life) that I’ve felt, so acutely, that I’ve actually been living through history. It’s been the first year that I’ve felt so sincerely the building up of tensions that have yet to climax.

Here’s a list, in case you’ve forgotten, of things that have happened to us all this year:

  • The outbreak of Zika virus
  • North Korea launching missiles all over the shop
  • The bombing of Brussels
  • The bombing of Lahore
  • The bombing of Istanbul
  • The shooting-up of Pulse in Orlando, Florida; the deadliest mass shooting in American history and one of at least 472 that have happened this year
  • Brexit
  • The absolute pointlessness of the Labour Party meltdown
  • The drowning of refugees in the Mediterranean
  • The attack on folks celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, France
  • The attempted coup in Turkey
  • The mass-bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef
  • The Syrian conflict, the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey
  • Trump
  • The rise of far-right nationalism and xenophobia in the West
  • The rise of racism and white supremacy in the United States
  • Ongoing austerity, ongoing scapegoating, the selling off of the NHS, etc etc etc.

And here we are! At the end of it all, but also at the beginning.

It doesn’t matter that the universe doesn’t give a shit about us, and it doesn’t matter that a year is actually hardly anything more than a meteorological/astronomical event. There are seven-point-four billion people kicking about on the planet right now, the vast majority of whom possess a great lucidity of consciousness. We are all bound by the Georgian calendar. Some terrible shit has gone down in the world this year, and 2016 has mattered to everyone.

Back in 1968, American author & historian Susan Strasser was “literally too pessimistic to say ‘Happy New Year‘” to any of her pals. If we replace pessimism with an overarching feeling of despondent apathy (or is it apathetic despondency?), we’ve got me. Things are happening and there’s shit all I can do about it, but I’ll wish everyone a Happy New Year anyway, because what else can you do? Good riddance won’t work, because I understand that, though it may matter to us as people, a year means nothing to human folly and the unfolding of events. And hey ho, the Earth continues its unwavering journey around the sun.

Glasgow (or, Wordlessness)

I went to Glasgow on a whim today. Halfway down the stairs of my apartment building, I decided that I’d give my legs a rest and take the train into town, and halfway to the station, I decided that if the train was ultimately bound for Glasgow, I’d get on it and go the distance. It was – and it was the express service – so I did. And from my perch on the pull-down seat next to the train doors, I watched as the impossibly picturesque Forth Valley gave way to the familiar industrial landscape that bleeds out from all city centres; and I was struck, not for the first time, by the realisation that central Scotland possesses a colour palette entirely different to that of the North of England. A green much less vibrant, marked with sandy browns and the deep maroon of a plant that I have no name for. And here, as the train rolled through Bishopbriggs, through Springburn, grays and whites appeared in the form of brick walls and rail-side birch trees. An aesthetic that I’d long since grown accustomed to, but entirely different at this latitude.

I’d taken this journey a week ago, in the early winter darkness, but it didn’t end when I disembarked at Queen Street. I’d fought against tides of festive families en route to the Christmas Markets and run blindly in the general direction of Central Station, anxious to get to my connection. But today, in the midday sun, I rolled out of the station with no set destination, hands wrapped around a surprisingly delicious flat white prepared for me by a station attendant, and I walked for hours.

And I’d arrived in the mood to write. The linguistic areas of my brain had already been illuminated, set alight late last night by a girl in love with poetry. So I saw everything and responded with language. The ginger babyface wrapped in a blanket and crouched on a piece of rotting cardboard on Argyle Street. The hasty Italian men that checked me as I idled at a crossing, breaking into a panicked sprint as they clocked the double-decker racing down the hill towards them. The crumbling buildings and 1990s store front facades, and the railway bridge that shoots out over the River Clyde, carrying passengers in and out out of the city on cross-country lines. And the kid with the denim jacket and leather bicycle seat, trying to weave his way up a busy pedestrianised high street; I envied his lifestyle momentarily, envied – as I often do in the places like this – the fact that he belonged to such a perfect dive, but I saw him hours later, wheeling his bike off the train in Stirling. Turns out that it was me, and I saw everything.

But I had no notebook with which I could bring this language into existence, so I ducked into Waterstones to buy one. But it was unbearably busy, and I was hot, and the notebooks were both substandard and overpriced. So I turned around and raced for the door, but my eyes, darting around as they do in these instances, fell upon a copy of Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. And I cannot overstate the profundity of this moment, for I both somehow stopped dead in my tracks and didn’t miss a beat in grabbing it and racing back towards the till. I’d forgotten my headache and my dizziness, and I’d forgotten all about my inherent frugality. I’d been looking for this book for almost two years, and here it was. A dude called Glenn titles his hyper-concise Goodreads review of this book as “the Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer“, and here we are.

Five weeks without a single word.

Five weeks of something, of everything, but five weeks with absolutely nothing to say.

Five weeks of frustration, of self-deprecation, of endless irritation at my lack of ability to conjure up anything at all, brought to a sudden end with an uncharacteristically impulsive trip to Glasgow. By a late-night conversation with someone who loves words as much as I do. By a series of beautiful accidents and questionable choices.

I haven’t read anything by Murakami in months, but I’ve thought about him often in these last couple of weeks. Poster-boy for dedication to the craft and everything that I lack.

Glasgow.

A reminder to do better, as always, next time around.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing can happen (til you swing the bat)

Last night, I leant against a wooden telephone pole several streets from my grandmother’s home. I watched a plume of heavy smoke drift into the night sky from the foot of a nearby hill, carrying the light of the street lamps up with it and revealing the field of transmission towers that stood between us in its brilliant luminescence. I hadn’t seen a fire in a long time and my eyes searched, perhaps hungrier than they should’ve been, for the hint of a flame poking out between the houses. I never found one, but a firework went off above it all, and I wondered about that for a moment before I realised where I was and what it was all about. It was soon followed by another, and then another, and I pushed myself upright and stuffed my hands into my pockets. Conceding to the fact that the glimpse of a tiny bonfire was a poor replacement for the old wildfire that I really wanted to see, I carried on. Novo Amor sang out through my headphones. It was the third time yesterday that I’d aimlessly wandered around this neighbourhood.

I leave in 24 hours. I lasted five years and twelve days. I’ve been writing this out for over a week now, but I’ve struggled to maintain a consistent vibe because I’ve struggled to maintain a consistent feeling in my chest, oscillating constantly from one extreme to the other. I wanted to write about everything that I’d learned in the last five years, but last night, gazing out at the smoke and the pylons and the poorly executed light show, I realised that everything I’d learned was just a different rendering of the same exact lesson, and this is it: The only thing worth giving a damn about in this world are the folks in it, and absolutely nothing else. Nothing else at all.

But again, as ever, I can’t reconcile the love for my friends with the need to seek out my ever-unattainable original landscape. And what do I say here?  Do I need to leave because my parents accidentally gave me the beautiful gift of placelessness as a child, or do I need to leave because I grew up around lanky adolescents who talked about nothing but the Kerouacian dream? Do I need to leave because I can’t commit to anything for an extended period of time, or can I not commit because I still believe in the deepest part of my soul that the original landscape actually exists? You can’t build anything on unstable ground after all, but I was taught to always be wary of earthquakes and there is nothing more exhilarating than dashing out through the door when one hits.

Is this all in my head? Most definitely. And am I sorry? Most desperately, but also not at all. My mother always tells me that I would find a way to settle if I really wanted to, but I have found no way. And truth be told, I haven’t even looked.

My shoulders have grown broad and hair has sprouted up on my cheeks since I’ve been here, and everyone likes to tell me all about how much I’ve changed. But I am ever the scrawny seventeen year-old with sun-bleached brown hair and a battered old copy of L’etranger in my pocket. But listen, something significant has changed in me, and I no longer hold my friends at arm’s length, and I would travel the world over with any one of them if only they’d come with me. And I blame not one of them for staying put, because this place is endlessly beautiful.

I’m always hyper-aware and often times embarrassed that, whenever I sit down to write something here, every word that drops down from my fingers is tainted with pseudo-poetic bullshit, but I lack the means (read: the guts) to be direct about anything. So let me be explicit, let me be absolutely clear for just once: I am sad as hell to be leaving but I am happy as hell to be going, and this is the most wholesome feeling that I’ve ever known.

My palms have only just healed over from the first swing of the bat, but they itch now for another hit and I’m almost certain that they’ll never again sting like they did all those years ago. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to step down from the plate, I wonder if I’ll ever want to; and I can’t stop thinking about all the people who dragged me up there in the first place, the people who handed me the bat without even knowing it, the people who lightheartedly slapped me on the back as I clenched my teeth and willed my arms to stop shaking. If only I could express to them what it meant to me. Thanks ma, thanks pops, thanks Jamie, thanks Kim, and so on and on and on.

Scotland feels one million miles away, and the hilarity of that thought cannot be overstated. When I left Reno, I left Reno. I surrendered every right I had to abode there and cannot go back. I know that I’ll always be welcome here, but with the sharpest taste of irony in mouth, this action feels absolute in a way that that one never did. I’ve learned what happens when you can’t find your way but don’t turn around and run home, and it is nothing short of limitlessly glorious.

What do I say here?

I love you, I’ll miss you, I’ll see you soon.